The new member of Knesset was carrying a large book as she walked to the podium to deliver her maiden speech in the Knesset. Not everyone noticed this heavy tome. When she began to speak, her fellow parliamentarians slowly shifted their attention from their computer screens or the papers they were inspecting. Something in the tone of her voice was different. Knesset members usually speak in a staccato, a rhythm punctuated by short, fragmented sentences. We've become used to the idea that a good politician is someone who knows how to speak in sound bites, snippets, short pieces of information that can be swallowed without needing to be chewed. But this was a different type of speech: no sharp edges, welcoming, reflecting, wondering, curious, intriguing.
A silence fell over the plenum.
The new MK raised the book she had brought with her, a compilation of writings from the Talmud. The Talmud does not come to the Knesset every day. It is not brought up to the podium every day, to be opened and read, certainly not by a woman. The new MK, who also holds a doctorate in Talmud, described just how much the study of Gemara (the Aramaic name of the Talmud) changed her life. She did not go into unnecessary detail. In the same convivial tone, she simply opened the Talmud and studied a midrash aggadah, a little story from the Talmud, together with her fellow MKs in the Knesset.
MK Dr. Ruth Calderon was not in a hurry. She may be a new member of the Knesset, but she knows that learning Talmud must come from a place of calm, clear thinking and enjoyment. She began talking about tractate Ketubot 62b, and read the text, first in Aramaic (for the cadence, as she said) and then in Hebrew translation. It discusses someone, Rav Rehumi who studied in Mahoza, one of the Ivy League yeshivas of Babylonia. She discussed the subtle, ironic tension of the story, and that the Talmudic sages themselves may have wondered just how merciful Rav Rehumi was. She also reminded her listeners that in Aramaic rehumi means compassion. How beautiful this is, she reflected out loud, that in our culture the word rehem, that comes in Hebrew from the same root as the word womb, is a synonym for compassion, while in other cultures the female womb, hystra, has become a word that, ironically, signifies the oppression of women, hysteria.
The chairman of the session, MK Yitzhak Vaknin of the Shas party, who was listening attentively, suddenly found himself adding spontaneously that in gematria (numerology) rehem equals ramach (248), the number of positive commandments as well, according to Talmudic sources, the number of parts of the body. Dr. Calderon immediately responded by thanking him and interjecting yashar koach (well done!). She said, "I’m happy to have partners in Torah study." Just like that, in a simple, unpretentious, comment, the legislature of Israel, which usually deals with profane matters, turned into a beit midrash.
A cloak of attentiveness spread over the Knesset plenum. MK Calderon is not just a Talmudic scholar but also an experienced professional. When she described the dramatic moment of this wonderful midrash, the Knesset seemed to hold its collective breath. It was no coincidence that within two days, the maiden speech given by MK Ruth Calderon registered 150,000 viewers on YouTube.
Over the years, the Orthodox world made Talmud study out of bounds for women. Boys learned Talmud, not girls. It was the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, the Reform and Masorti/ Conservative movements, and now the secular Jews who have taken an interest in Jewish studies, as well as the reformist trend in Orthodoxy, that have challenged this male monopoly. But it has taken time for this revolution to come into its own as a political presence. And now it's happened right here, in the Knesset. Here is an MK, who navigates naturally, confidently within the pages of the Mishnah and the Talmud, and uses them – like a full-fledged owner of their wisdom and knowledge – as a natural base for political argument.
By contrast, only a few months ago, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, the rabbi of Ramat Gan and one of religious Zionism's most important leaders, ruled that very few women want to learn Gemara "out of pure intentions," and that in general, learning Talmud has not shown itself to help women on a religious level…." Rabbi Ariel should do himself the honor of coming to Ruth’s beit midrash. Come and see, rabbi, come and learn. Come to the Knesset or to one of the hundreds of pluralistic batei midrash and communities where learning takes place today all across the country. Don’t be afraid. Today there are female Talmud scholars, teachers of Halachah, and even rabbis.
Atty. Yizhar Hess is the executive director of the Masorti Movement in Israel